Jubilee review – ‘Funny, self-referential, and visually exciting’

Bertie Harrison-Broninski finds this adaptation of Derek Jarman's original film is a show one that he might be proud of

A scene from Jubilee. Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

“It’s funny isn’t it? In 1977, someone shouting NO FUTURE sounded like the most extreme nihilistic punk. Forty years on, it’s a fact. It’s mainstream climate science.”

Updating Derek Jarman’s iconic 1978 film for 2018 (Queen Elizabeth’s ‘Uranium Jubilee’) is no easy task, but writer and director Chris Goode adapts it to the modern era with ease. References to ISIS, Brexit, Trump, and more are littered throughout. A monologue that ends with a statement about how the middle-class have only just realised that tower blocks are “designed for killing poor people” produces a resounding ‘hmm’ in the audience, as if confirming that they’d never considered this before.

The Lyric Hammersmith has been fashioned as a squat – some of the audience is sitting around the edge of the stage on arm chairs and sofas. To get to our seats in the stalls we have to walk on a ramp over the theatre seating and onto benches that have been constructed over the top. As we enter the theatre then, we already have a sense of the anarchic. Punk rock spits venom into the bland face of the straight world” is scrawled across the back wall.

The focus on genderqueer issues is the theme that really sets the play in 2018. These are handled intelligently and with complexity. The play starts with Amyl Nitrate, played brilliantly by transgender actor Travis Alabanza, doing a catwalk, in an opening that tempts the audience into thinking the play will be a celebration of the non-heteronormative. It is, but it is also deeply critical of the current commercialisation of LGBTQ+ culture. In an effort to combat the “leeches”, our troop of anti-heroes set out to kill Lounge Lizard, a pop star being marketed “to tweenies as some kind of genderqueer icon”, but we are left wondering why they haven’t set out to combat the marketers. It is perhaps a nod to the atmosphere of celebrity blame-and-shame that we live in.

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Later, we are shown a piece of performance art that may or may not be a parody – the audience doesn’t know whether or not to take it seriously. Just after we have a scene in which police murder a gay couple. It is both a nod to police trigger-happiness in America and a reminder that this kind of misconduct, as well as institutional prejudice, is still present in the U.K. too. It is also one of many scenes that makes us question the importance of art. Is this play just another piece of pretentious performance art doing nothing to stop the oppression of minorities, or does it have value? Early on there is a line about how they’re using council arts funding to promote incest. Should art be moral?

By the end of the play, the audience is a bit drained. Amyl tells us they’re not presenting “a pessimistic viewpoint” but it’s hard to agree. We’re not given a lot to be hopeful about. This alone is not necessarily a criticism – sentimentality would undermine the play’s message – but combined with an inconsistency of pacing the play lacks narrative direction. Skits with Elizabeth I and John Dee haven’t been integrated as well as in Jarman’s original and feel a bit forced, despite being an interesting idea. Amyl addresses this, in typically self-conscious style: “I’d cut out some of that Lizzy sh*t”. This time, I can agree.

Lizzy, Mad, and Amyl all seem to be battling for the job of narrator, but it is always Alabanza’s Amyl that commands the stage and audience. Amyl’s monologues are moving, thought provoking and also very funny. Mad’s character seems a bit of a missed opportunity – her symbolic trait is that of a revolutionary, but she feels no more revolutionary than the other lead characters, and lacks a really poignant scene of her own.

Some of the singing and dancing is excellent; the young Yandass Ndlovu’s number is a highlight. At other times, however, a bit more integration with the story could have helped: having one or two characters on stage to sing at random points feels a bit like they’re just giving the others a costume change.

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Despite this, Jubilee is good fun to watch. This aspect of it should not be understated. While giving us plenty of opportunities to question its message, the play rejoices in its unconstrained entertainment. Funny, self-referential, and visually exciting, if not stunning, Amyl probably summarises it better than I can. It’s “an iconic film most of you have never even heard of, adapted by an Oxbridge tw*t for a dying medium, spoiled by millennials, ruined by diversity, and constantly threatening to go all interactive”. I’m sure Jarman would be proud.